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Anxiety Attack vs. Panic Attack: What’s the Difference?

In informal conversations, anxiety and panic are sometimes used interchangeably. But from a mental health perspective there are some important differences between the two terms. Knowing how to differentiate an anxiety attack vs. a panic attack can be an important step toward finding the right type of treatment.

What Is Anxiety?

In clinical terms, anxiety can refer to several disorders that are characterized by excessive worry and disproportionate fear. Some of these disorders are also associated with distressing physical symptoms.

The anxiety disorders section of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) contains entries for:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Social anxiety disorder (social phobia)
  • Specific phobia
  • Agoraphobia
  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Selective mutism

Some symptoms can differ among these disorders, but the main differentiators are the situations or circumstances that trigger the onset of symptoms. For example:

  • Agoraphobia symptoms are related to being in close or wide-open spaces.
  • Specific phobia symptoms typically involve certain animals or items.
  • Social anxiety disorder is associated with meeting new people or being observed by others.
  • Separation anxiety disorder is linked with a fear that something horrible may happen to a loved one.

For two of the disorders on this list – generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder – symptoms can occur at any time, often for no obvious reason.

When anxiety symptoms become so severe that they have a debilitating impact, this experience is often described as having an anxiety attack. These types of attacks can involve various anxiety disorders, but they may be most common among people who have GAD.

What Happens During a Panic Attack?

A panic attack involves the sudden onset of severe anxiety along with a host of troubling physical symptoms, such as:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Racing heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sense of being smothered or choked
  • Hot flashes
  • Heavy perspiration
  • Tingling or numbness in hands and feet

Panic attacks can also involve periods of depersonalization (the sense of becoming detached from your body, thoughts, and feelings) or derealization (the sense that you have become separated from your environment, as though the world has been trained of color or you are looking at it through a pane of glass). 

Typically, panic attacks are relatively brief, lasting five to 10 minutes. But when someone is in the midst of a panic attack, the symptoms can feel as though they will never end – and it’s not uncommon for them to believe that they may be about to die.

Anxiety Attack vs. Panic Attack

Now that we’ve discussed the various forms of anxiety disorders and what people endure during a panic attack, let’s look at some of the key differences between anxiety attacks vs. panic attacks:

  • Types of symptoms: Both anxiety attacks and panic attacks can include physical and psychological symptoms. However, anxiety attacks usually lean heavily toward difficult emotions, such as deep fears or unrealistic worries, while the dominant symptoms in panic attacks are often the physical effects. 
  • Onset of symptoms: Panic attacks usually occur out of the blue, with little to no warning and no apparent trigger. Anxiety attacks usually happen after a gradual intensification of symptoms over an extended period.
  • Duration of symptoms: Most panic attacks are thankfully short-lived, rarely lasting more than 10 minutes or so. Anxiety attacks can last for much longer.

There is also an important similarity between anxiety attacks vs. panic attacks, which we will discuss in greater detail in the next section: They are treatable.

Treatment Options for Anxiety Attacks and Panic Attacks

If your life has been disrupted by anxiety attacks or panic attacks, there are a variety of treatment options that can significantly improve your health. 

Depending on a host of personal factors, you may be best served by one or more of the following programs:

  • Residential treatment
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP)
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP)

Within these programs, your care may involve both medication and therapy.

The medications that are commonly included in treatment for anxiety or panic include: 

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Benzodiazepines

From a therapeutic perspective, your care may include services such as:

  • Individual psychotherapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Biosound therapy
  • Red light therapy
  • Genetic testing

If your struggles with anxiety attacks or panic attacks are associated with a history of untreated trauma, interventions such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy may also be extremely beneficial.

Remember: There is no single type of treatment that’s perfect for everyone, which is why it is so important to find a provider who will take the time to ascertain the full scope of your needs and develop a customized plan just for you.

Find Treatment for Anxiety or Panic in Nashville

If you have been experiencing anxiety attacks or panic attacks, Arbor Wellness is here to help.

Our mental health treatment center in Nashville, Tennessee, is a safe space where you can receive comprehensive care and close personal attention. Our team will work with you to determine which programs and services best align with your needs and goals, and then we’ll develop a customized plan that can put you on the path toward a much healthier and more hopeful future.

To learn more about how we can help you or someone that you care about, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Admissions page or call us today.